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Game of Thrones: Ranking the Seasons
Game of Thrones concluded its seventh season on Sunday with its longest and most-watched episode ever. And although the 80-minute mini-movie set up several tantalizing possibilities for the all-too-distant final season, you could also read "The Dragon and the Wolf" as a climactic entry in the series. A long-promised romance was consummated -- and complicated. Another series-defining love affair came to an end. And the Night King's long march south finally reached an end-of-the-beginning landmark. The Army of the Deadhase arrived in Westeros. The Great War has become.
But will the Great War be the greatest war? The conclusion of season 7 marks a good moment to look back over the long history of Thrones and recall the highs and lows of the HBO fantasy phenomenon. Here, every season of Thrones, ranked from Dorne-iest to best.
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7. Season 5
Sand Snake jokes aside, a serious scholar could find a lot to praise in the show's least-loved season. Requiring a near-total reboot in the wake of season 4's wondrous calamities, Thrones began its second half with its characters embedded in frustratingly unfantastical perils. In positions of authority, Jon and Dany struggle to keep various factions united. In the post-Tywin King's Landing power vacuum, a new strain of religious fundamentalism adds a curious new quirk to Westerosi courtly politics. Years past his prime, poor terrible Stannis tries to do something.
There's a standout episode here, barely essential but wondrous to behold: The unexpectedly epic "Hardhome," which adapts a distant skirmish from the books into death-metal glory. The rest of the season can't compare, unfortunately, the occasional Dragon cameo aside. Season 5 never quite figured out how to make drama out of bureaucratic stasis, and so every season since has seemed like an eventful counter-reaction. Also, yes, the Sand Snakes, period.
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6. Season 2
In some ways, the first real season of Game of Thrones. While the first 10 episodes constitute an extended prologue – the end of the generation that defined Robert's Rebellion, the rise of their children – season 2 dives deep into the brave new era. King Joffrey and King Robb wage war, their fathers' friendship forgotten. Over in Dragonstone, a sullen man named Stannis stews. Renly Baratheon totally pulls a Renly on this whole "rebellion" thing. And there are also Greyjoys! A season with unique delights and intriguing new characters, but it's also essentially an extended set-up for the eye-popping Battle of Blackwater (directed by series standout director Neil Marshall.) Also, Dany keeps losing her dragons. Her dragons!
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5. Season 7
Unfair, maybe, to rank the penultimate batch of episodes as a genuine season. Thrones followed The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men in the grand tradition of TV-drama phenomena that wrap up with two "half-seasons," and it's possible that the elaborate table-setting in season 7 will pay off (immediately and spectacularly) in season 8. And there's no question that a lot happened in the most recent sequence of episodes – even if a lot of substantive plot stuff seemed largely dedicated to lesser players in the great game. Season 7 practically made an episodic game out of killing whole Great Families of Westeros, starting from the minute-one assassination of House Frey and climaxing with the demise of the freaking Lord Protector of the Vale.
The shrugging reaction to the latter death sums up this season's flaws, unfortunately. By focusing so much energy on eliminating some players, the show seemed to be biding time with the all-important Lannister-Targaryen-Stark trio. Cersei patrolled the Red Keep's corridors, and Dany stood at Dragonstone, and Jon Snow sailed south and north and south again. It wasn't all wheel-spinning, of course: The pairing of Jon and Daenerys was a series-defining inevitability (even if their courtly flirtation lacked the sparks of earlier romances). And if you like dragons, season 7 had dragons – one of them dead, breathing blue fire! But the average viewer probably felt a bit like Arya and Sansa up on walls of Winterfell: Looking ahead to the future, happy to forget the past.
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4. Season 6
The early years of Thrones were elegantly structured slow burns, often with punishing anti-climaxes that set the stage for more misery ahead. Coming off the darkest year of the show's history, the sixth season sets a different course: bloodthirsty, chaotic, melodramatic, wild. While Dorne overcorrects into vengeful matriarchy and Arya charts a twisted course through the Faceless Man School of Assassinship, Jon wakes up from his own death with a new haircut and a no-bull attitude.
It's a messy season in some respects, full of eye-popping imagery and curious logical leaps – why was Max Von Sydow a tree? – but it all climaxes with the best one-two punch of final episodes the show has ever had. "Battle of the Bastards" is the high point for Thrones' warlike fire, a brilliant burst of bloody poetry; "The Winds of Winter" is the show’s icy superego, a series of revelations and twists that leave the narrative gameboard wiped clean.
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3. Season 1
It's practically a low-key chamber drama compared to the fire and blood that followed. But the slow-burn of Thrones' debut season has aged remarkably well. The gradual descent of Ned Stark is one of the show's more purposefully deflating arcs. Played with fallen-demi-god charisma by Sean Bean, Ned's already a broken-down figure before his shocking death, laid low by injury and betrayal. Credit season 1 for sheer world-building dexterity, too. Far-flung locations like Castle Black and the Eyrie come to life, even with only the scantest plot connection.
In the show's democratic vision, characters who could have seemed random take on freakish life: Think of Robyn Arryn demanding to see the bad man fly or sneering Viserys brought low and ridiculous in his final moments. Thrones was still cheap enough to avoid big battle scenes, but that gave the writers more time for delectably overwrought character introduction. (Witness the arrival of Tywin Lannister, soliloquizing whilst skinning a deer.) Merely the start of big things, but quite a big thing in its own right.
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2. Season 3
There are Thrones years with clear-cut arcs and defining Big Bads, building toward a penultimate-episode showdown and a future-resetting finale. Season 3 is not one of those seasons, and you could look back to it as an initial indicator of some of the show's worst time-killing instincts. (Did we need Theon's season of torture? Or so many seasons of Bran's long walk northwards?) But season 3 triumphs as a showcase for some of the show's best double acts. While Jon and Ygritte enter the midpoint of their tragic love story, Brienne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister set off on a journey that redefines our understanding of both characters. Season 3 sees the show opening up its vision of the larger world throughout Westeros, with vaguely parasitic entities like the Brotherhood Without Banners foreshadowing the religious groups that would ascend throughout the shows later years.
Really, though, season 3 belongs so high up for two sequences. First, the Red Wedding, an all-time TV shock that's become synonymous with the very idea of all-time TV shocks. Second, the moment when Daenerys whispers "Dracarys," revealing the full artillery force of her toddler dragons. It's the moment a legend is born, in the Game of Thrones world and our own.
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1. Season 4
The linchpin year that destroyed what was left of the Westeros status quo, while setting in motion all the defining conflicts of the series' back half. The fourth season benefits the most from the source material. Having chosen to split A Storm of Swords across two seasons, the showrunners were able to construct a 10-episode sequence that kicks off at a precipice moment post-Red Wedding. The pace never slackens: There's a Purple Wedding and the Trial of Tyrion, the stunning Wildling battle up north and rebel Queen Dany's long march through Slaver's Bay.
This was the height of the show's icon-generating powers – it's hard to think of any character since season 4 who's made an immediate and lasting impression to match Oberyn Martell. That character's death is one of the show's most brilliant shocks, but other fatalities feel painfully inevitable and Greek-Tragic. Up north, a young warrior holds his nemesis-lover in his arms, watching her die. Down south, a despised son kills his own father (and the woman who betrayed him). And all through the ruined nation of Westeros, Arya and the Hound continue their endless patrol, a road-tripping pair looking in vain for anything like home.